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Judge extends order halting WVa needle exchange law

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal judge Thursday extended a temporary restraining order on West Virginia's new law that tightens requirements on needle exchange programs. U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers said he will mull the argument by plaintiffs that the law, which was due to take effect Friday, is unconstitutional, The Herald-Dispatch reported.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill in April over the objections of critics who said it will restrict access to clean needles amid a spike in HIV cases. The American Civil Liberties Union’s West Virginia chapter filed the federal lawsuit last month and Chambers issued the restraining order June 28.

The law would require licenses for syringe collection and distribution programs. Operators would have to offer an array of health outreach services, including overdose prevention education and substance abuse treatment program referrals. Participants also must show an identification card to obtain a syringe.

Programs also would be required to receive majority support from local county commissions and municipal councils. Advocates view the regulations as onerous. Supporters said the legislation would help those addicted to opioids get connected to health care services fighting substance abuse. Some Republicans lawmakers had said the changes were necessary because some needle exchange programs were “operating so irresponsibly” that they were causing syringe litter.

The ACLU chapter said the law would likely lead to more HIV cases and the spread of other bloodborne illnesses. It would take effect amid one of the nation’s highest spikes in HIV cases related to intravenous drug use. The surge, clustered mainly around the capital of Charleston and the city of Huntington, was attributed at least in part to the cancellation in 2018 of Charleston's needle exchange program.

The surge has led to an investigation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that last month found emergency departments and inpatient medical personnel rarely conducted HIV testing on intravenous drug users in Kanawha County.

Previously, city leaders and first responders complained that the program in Kanawha County led to an increase in needles being left in public places and abandoned buildings, and it was shut down. The CDC describes syringe programs as “safe, effective, and cost-saving.”

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